Capitol Police examines backgrounds, social media feeds of some who meet with lawmakers

By | January 24, 2022

After the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Capitol Police’s intelligence unit quietly started scrutinizing the backgrounds of people who meet with lawmakers, according to three people familiar with the matter.

POLITICO also viewed written communications describing the new approach, part of a host of changes that the department implemented after the Capitol attack. Examining the social media feeds of people who aren’t suspected of crimes, however, is a controversial move for law enforcement and intelligence officials given the civil liberties concerns it raises.

Among those who have been subject to new Capitol Police scrutiny are Hill staffers, the three people said. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said in an interview that he is unaware of any members who know about the “very, very bad” practice.

“Whatever they think that sounds like for security, it sounds dangerously close — if not already over the line — to spying on members of Congress, their staff, their constituents and their supporters,” said Armstrong, a former criminal defense attorney.

“Anybody involved with implementing this without making it known to the actual members of Congress should resign or be fired immediately,” he added. “And I’m not big on calling for resignations.”

Several Capitol Police intelligence analysts have already raised concerns about the practice to the department’s inspector general, according to one of the people who spoke for this story.

The Capitol Police, in a statement, defended the practice of searching for public information about people meeting with lawmakers and said the department coordinates the work with members’ offices.

“The more public information we have, the better we can understand what kind and how much security is necessary,” the statement said.

Major changes in the Capitol Police intelligence unit started in fall of 2020, when the department brought on former Department of Homeland Security official Julie Farnam to help run its intelligence unit, which is housed in its Intelligence and Interagency Coordination Division. In the weeks before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Farnam made a host of changes to internal intelligence protocols that “caused internal confusion” and “scrambled the priorities” of the unit’s analysts, according to CNN.

Then, in the months after the riot, Farnam changed another key process in a way that hasn’t been previously reported.

For years, analysts in the department’s intelligence division have put together documents called Congressional Event Assessments. That process entails the House and Senate Sergeants at Arms, Congress’ chambers’ internal logistical and security leaders, sharing information with Capitol Police on lawmakers’ plans for meetings and events away from the Capitol.

Intelligence division analysts then use that information to assess physical safety risks to those events — things such as large, planned protests, parades, concerts or other events that would draw crowds. Analysts regularly filled out a standard template with that assessment.

But after the Capitol attack, Farnam changed the template. According to a copy that POLITICO reviewed, she directed analysts to look closely at the people meeting privately and publicly with members. A Capitol Police spokesperson said the template POLITICO reviewed was not the most recent version.

In addition to basic information about the event, the revised template reviewed by POLITICO asked analysts to describe “the backgrounds of the participants (other than [Members of Congress]) and attendees, if known.”

The template also told intelligence analysts to look at social media feeds related to event attendees: “In searching social media outlets, is there anything that may impact the event itself or any of the participants (both [Members of Congress] and other known attendees)?”

And it told Capitol Police analysts to search for information about lawmakers’ opponents and their opponents’ supporters: “List and search all political opponents to see if they or their followers intend to attend or disrupt the event.”

In another document reviewed by POLITICO, one Capitol Police official noted that Farnam directed analysts to run “background checks” on people whom lawmakers planned to meet, including donors and associates. When staff were listed as attending these meetings, Capitol Police intelligence analysts also got asked to check the social media accounts of the staffers.

Analysts were also directed to probe the ownership of buildings where members of Congress held their meetings.

“Is there a foreign interest or ownership in the event location?” the revised template read. “Are there any permanent delegations or missions in the immediate area of the event?”

Beyond foreign ownership, analysts were directed to provide more information about the buildings where members of Congress held meetings. The intelligence division leadership asked analysts to search for information about how many rooms were in these buildings, what amenities were available, and even their last remodeling.

Analysts also were tasked with sifting through tax and real estate records to find out who owned the properties that lawmakers visited. For example, the unit scrutinized a meeting that Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) held with donors in a private home. Analysts eyed the homeowner’s and attendees’ social media accounts, and looked for any foreign contacts they had.

“These reports are incredibly disturbing,” Scott spokesperson McKinley Lewis said in a statement. “It is unthinkable that any government entity would conduct secret investigations to build political dossiers on private Americans. The American people deserve to know what Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi knew and directed, and when. Senator Scott believes the Senate Rules Committee should immediately investigate.”

Lewis added that their office had no knowledge of the level of scrutiny that Capitol Police analysts were conducting regarding the senator’s events.

The unit has also scrutinized multiple donors who have met with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). A spokesperson for Scalise said the congressman was unaware of the scrutiny those meetings received.

A spokesperson for the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over chamber security matters and is chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), declined to comment.

As a general practice, Farnam directed analysts to search for any information about event attendees, including donors and staff, “that would cast a member in a negative light,” according to one person familiar with the workings of the department’s intelligence office. This included searching for information about mayors, Hill staff, and state legislators.

‘Just like journalists, we do research’

The Capitol Police, in a statement, described the practice of seeking public information about people meeting with lawmakers as part of the department’s mission.

“It is our duty to protect Members of Congress wherever they are,” the statement said. “Just like journalists, we do research with public information.”

A Capitol Police official said that its intelligence analysts look into each person listed as attending an event. The official said that lawmakers ask for intelligence assessments, through the House or Senate Sergeants at Arms’ offices, as well as coordination with local law enforcement, for specific events they plan to attend. Lawmakers then provide names of attendees to the Sergeant at Arms, who shares those names with Capitol Police, this official explained.

Nonetheless, the responses from Armstrong, Scalise, and Scott indicate that lawmakers who provide information to the department may not be aware of the scope of the analysis conducted on their associates.

The intelligence office’s policy shift came in the wake of a violent riot that sparked a reckoning over congressional security, including on how Capitol Police gathers intelligence on threats facing members. The department official noted that the Capitol Police’s inspector general has urged the Department to do more to protect lawmakers and to emulate the Secret Service, which conducts checks of its own on the backgrounds of those who meet the president.

Civil liberties experts warned that the Capitol Police’s updated practice raises the prospect of First Amendment violations.

Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice, said the practice is “of questionable legality” and is “a recipe for creating dossiers on people.”

She added that federal law protects against “collecting and keeping of data about people without a specified and authorized purpose.”

Patrick Toomey, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said the Capitol Police unit’s practice raises concerns about the constitutional rights of people who meet with lawmakers.

“When police set out to monitor people’s social media activity without any reason to believe they have engaged in criminal activity, it raises First Amendment concerns,” he said. “Those concerns are especially strong here, where individuals are coming under scrutiny simply because they are exercising their right to petition members of Congress.”

And privacy worries climb too, he said, when “this monitoring may mean that people’s protected speech is retained in police files indefinitely.”